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Becoming Intentional About Christmas

Michael Brown, MSC, LMFT

“A lovely thing about Christmas is that it is compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.”

-Garrison Keillor

If your family celebrates Christmas, chances are you will celebrate it this year no matter how last year turned out. Because Christmas patterns are formed in both the broader societal culture and one’s own family culture, becoming intentional about Christmas offers a serious challenge. The following are family therapist William Doherty’s recommendations for accepting the inevitable hassles of Christmas while working toward it as an intentional family.

  1. Expect the traditional difficulties. Since family behaviors are predictable, even scripted, in most families, why not expect them to show themselves? If you anticipate these deviations from a “merry” Christmas, you will not let them ruin it. If it is a family Christmas, who does not expect your family to act like, well, your family?
  2. Plan for the bad moments. Take the edge off the post-Christmas dinner slump by proposing a family outing and, before the meal, have a variety of board games in reserve. Take advantage of family predictability by generating schemes to ward off the ill winds or at least minimize the damage.
  3. Be open to change. Don’t be so locked into your expectations of family members that you fail to notice, and celebrate when they act “out of character.” The balancing act for families at Christmas is to prepare for the norm while being open to the unpredictable.
  4. Get the Christmas Coordinator a supporting cast. Coordinating Christmas can be a rewarding experience, as long as one person doesn’t carry the whole burden. If the Coordinator involves others in the planning and work, everyone has a better time. Maximum participation is a cornerstone of successful family rituals.
  5. Slowly involve the Christmas Abstainer. Breaking out of the Abstainer role is best done gradually, perhaps by helping with one or two tasks the first year, and then adding others the next year. Keep in mind that real partnership in decision-making comes only after the Abstainer has shown that he or she can actively support and appreciate the Coordinator’s efforts.
  6. Honor traditions, but experiment with change. Tradition and continuity are what give Christmas its special quality. Changes are thus best introduced with delicacy and respect for other family members’ emotional attachments to the traditional ways.
  7. Discuss gift exchange expectations in advance. Intentional families are able to work out agreements on managing gift exchanges for the larger family clan.
  8. Create new Christmas rituals in single-parent families or stepfamilies. A new family structure can be reinforced by creating new ways to celebrate Christmas, ways that were not present in the previous family structure. For stepfamilies, it is important that aspects of both parents’ traditions be reflected in Christmas, plus some brand-new rituals that neither family shared in the past.
  9. Don’t be alone. When there is estrangement from family, find at least one relative to connect with at Christmas, in addition to the friends who have become your new intentional family.

Why do we celebrate a family Christmas even though it requires so much physical and psychological labor and carries the risk of so many things going wrong? Why don’t we just give up on it and go or hideaway? The reason is that Christmas if it is a part of your family traditions, is the one time in the year when you are expected to connect with everyone else in your family system. As William Doherty writes:

Christmas calls our families together once a year, and when we connect, we are pulled along, for a few days at least, by the same currents and we breathe the same air…. Although Christmas has become commercialized and trivialized in contemporary America, many of us would feel impoverished without it. We need a festival that combines the powerful elements of religion, culture, family, and the winter solstice… We need time to pursue ideals of family harmony and solidarity, even if the reality inevitably falls short. Despite its faults, if we did not have Christmas, we would have to invent it. (p. 131)


Doherty, W.J. (1997). The Intentional Family: Simple Rituals to Strengthen Family Ties. New York: Avon Books.

© 2024 Michael Brown, MSC, LMFT, dba Happy Couples Healthy Communities